SONGS OF THE DOOMED More Notes on the Death Of the American Dream, Gonzo Papers Vol. 3 By Hunter S. Thompson Summit Books. 315 pp. $21.95
ON THE BUS The Complete Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters and the Birth Of the Counterculture By Paul Perry and Ken Babbs Thunder's Mouth. 195 pp. Paperback, $21.95
THE FURTHER INQUIRY By Ken Kesey Viking. 215 pp. $24.95
HUNTER S. THOMPSON and Ken Kesey both attained great public celebrity in the '60s, and both have profoundly influenced the spiritual and political tenor of their time. Moreover, both are the beneficiaries as well as the victims of their self-created myths. In fact, it is virtually impossible to separate the impact of both men's works from the impact of their lives.
Thompson (the "Dr." does not seem to have any real credential behind it) began fabricating his life after he left Louisville to join the Air Force, where he got in trouble writing "controversial" stories for the base newspaper and displaying what Air Force officials called a "rebel and superior attitude." He was also known for his "sometimes over-powering affinity for wine." After an early discharge from the Air Force, Thompson studied journalism at Columbia University and went on to sportswriting for a number of small papers, as well as a far wider indulgence in substance abuse.
Like a lot of journalists in the late '50s and early '60s, he aimed at becoming a novelist, but his two novels, both of which are excerpted in this new collection, Songs of the Doomed, have a wooden, imitation-Hemingway quality. What saved Thompson from becoming one more failed alcoholic and drugged-out writer, and instead turned him into a pioneer of the only genuinely new and original literary form of our time, the so-called New Journalism, was an absolute commitment to telling the truth, not only about the world he lived in, but also about himself.
Songs of the Doomed is a valuable book because -- however mixed the quality of the melange of fiction and journalism it contains (the products of five decades, the end of the '50s through the start of the '90s, with a contemporary running commentary by the author) -- it allows us to track Thompson's evolution as a writer, and hence the evolution of the form he played such a major role in creating.
Even Thompson's first novel, Prince Jellyfish, is interesting, because the hero diverges just enough from Hemingway to give us insight into Thompson. Although all his life Thompson has posed as the macho tough guy, the barroom brawler who can down twice as much booze and ingest 10 times the drugs of anyone else present, the hero of Jellyfish is a deeply sensitive soul, constantly brooding on his own loneliness in a most un-Hemingway-like fashion, and on his alienation from the respectable world.
The key to Thompson, and to his writing, lies in his unusual ability both to sympathize with outsiders and to admire the skills and guts of those who have succeeded in making their mark (in his word, those who have prevailed). He found both qualities in the gangs of outlaw motorcylists he met in California in the mid '60s, who became the subject of his first book, the best-seller Hell's Angels. In the "Sixties" section of Songs of the Doomed, Thompson includes several pieces that reveal why he felt so close to the Angels. In a two-page tour de force called "Midnight on the Coast Highway," he writes about riding his own motorcycle with the throttle full out on a dark and dangerous road that he calls "The Edge . . . There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others -- the living -- are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later."
Although he tells us that of all his books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is "far and away my personal favorite," most of Thompson's fellow writers would probably cite his political reporting on Watergate and Nixon's downfall, included in an earlier volume of the Gonzo Papers, as his best work. Of the Watergate period he writes in Songs of the Doomed: "When I proposed that book on 'The Death of the American Dream' back in 1967 and then rushed off to cover the first act of Nixon's political 'comeback' in the '68 New Hampshire primary, my instinct was better than any of us knew at the time -- because the saga of Richard Nixon is The Death of the American Dream . . . He had a classic absolute lack of integrity or honesty or decency. Nixon was a monument to everything rotten in the American dream -- he was a monument ot why it failed. He is our monument."
There is unfortunately a dearth of Nixon material in Songs of the Doomed, but Thompson finds new grist for his crusade against the swinish self-absorption of the rich and powerful in wonderfully grotesque portraits of the Pulitzer divorce trial in Palm Beach, and of the bungling justice system in Aspen, Colo., where Thompson was almost put away for 44 years on eight felony counts -- allegedly because he had grabbed the left breast of an obnoxious woman reporter who wouldn't leave his house.
Thompson's legal hassles with the State of Colorado, which make up the last section of the book, point up the pitfalls of what he dubbed his "gonzo journalism." Gonzo, by his own definition, "is essentially the 'art' (or compulsion) of imposing a novelistic form on journalistic content." What this means in practice is that Thompson has mastered the fine art of putting on his readers, to the point where they sometimes can't tell where journalism leaves off and fiction begins. The put-on is the essential routine of his art, and it has served well to turn every major event in Thompson's life into an act of myth. So it is with this final section in the book, where we get a (presumably mock) press release announcing that Thompson was dismissed by a judge who "excoriated the District Attorney for Negligence, Malfeasance, and Criminal Abuse of Police Power" while the District Attorney "wept openly at the verdict and was led from the courtroom by bailiffs."
Although in this instance the parody is clear enough, there are places in the book where the reader is not sure where the insanity lies -- with the writer, with American society, or with himself. But the suspicion occurs several times that "Dr." Thompson has, after years of pursuing the complete derangement of his senses, finally made the journey to real madness -- to a place where the parameters of truth and fantasy have blended into each other -- and the result of this loss of perspective is often more disconcerting than it is enlightening.
BY CONTRAST, Ken Kesey seems to have spent the past 25 years making a journey in the opposite direction, from the disordering of his mental framework with massive doses of LSD-25 to the stable life of a dairy farmer and part-time writer and teacher in Eugene, Ore. Such a journey is all the more remarkable when one considers that before the age of 30, Kesey had written what are arguably two of the greatest novels in mid-century American literature: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. What intervened to change Kesey's life irrevocably was something known as the bus trip, and it is chronicled in two new books, Kesey's own The Further Inquiry and On The Bus, by journalist Paul Perry and Merry Prankster Ken Babbs.
The Pranksters began as a discussion group of aspiring young writers around Stanford University in the early '60s. With his sharp wit, imposing physical presence, and woodsy charisma, the Oregonian transplant Kesey naturally became the group's leader. But when Kesey hired himself out as a test subject for psychotropic drugs at the Menlo Park Veterans Adminstration Hospital, the dynamics of the group took a sudden turn in the direction of the irrational and the absurd. He filched a goodly supply of LSD for himself and his friends, which they soon augmented with peyote and other mind-expanding drugs then beginning to find their way into middle America. Almost overnight, the Pranksters went from tweedy, horn-rimmed scholars to cartoon-strip caricatures of heroism and individuality, and in the process they acquired nicknames that bespoke their roles in the new mythology. Kesey was alternately Swashbuckler, the Chief or, appropriately draped in stars and stripes, Captain Flag.
By the summer of 1964, Kesey had moved his growing band of acid enthusiasts down to a secluded piece of property near La Honda. Cuckoo's Nest had already been published to extraordinarily good reviews, and Notion was just about to appear. And a new literary connection had been formed -- Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, had joined the group. Cassady brought more than just his fast-talking showmanship and boundless drive for sex, speed and hip kicks to this crowd that was already, in the words of Hunter Thompson, "over the line." It was as if Cassady had taken the mantle of Beat Generation iconoclasm from Kerouac's neck and placed it on Kesey's -- and henceforth the country would be watching to see what he did with it.
It didn't take Kesey long to make a plan -- a crazy one. He bought a 1939 International Harvester schoolbus, which he and his Pranksters painted with Day-Glo paint in the first "psychedelic" designs; they filled the bus with movie and sound-recording equipment; equipped it with a jug full of orange juice laced with LSD; and set off for New York. Ostensibly their goal was to attend the publication party for Kesey's new novel, and to see the World's Fair, and in the process to make an avant-garde film about their adventures. But Kesey later claimed their real purpose was "to live life as a novel," and, even more ambitiously, "to stop the coming end of the world."
Once the apocalypse had been averted, they came home to California and began making converts to their new chemical ideology through a series of public intoxication rituals, complete with light shows and Grateful Dead music, known as the Acid Tests.
With the heady lifestyle changes that all but exploded across America in the following years, and with the publication of Tom Wolfe's brilliant work of countercultural propaganda, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), no one ever dared to question the key role ascribed to the bus trip in "turning on" the younger generation. Kesey and the Pranksters were heroes on a par with the Beatles and Bob Dylan; and after Kesey's two marijuana busts and Cassady's untimely death from an overdose of drugs and booze, they became martyrs to the cause of the new freedom. But more than a quarter century and four Republican presidents later, it seems we're ready for a reassessment.
Unfortunately, neither On the Bus nor The Further Inquiry completely fills this need, though of the two, On the Bus comes closest. The strength of Perry's and Babbs's book is that it mixes archival photographs and testimony (dutifully transcribed by Babbs from the hundreds of hours of Prankster tapes) with a variety of contemporary interviews with former participants. We learn from Ron Bevirt ("Hassler"), for example, that "this was an unpleasant trip. It was noisy and chaotic on the bus. Some people wanted to be left alone and others wanted to keep sticking a camera in everyone's face." Lee Quarnstrom tells of the frequent disharmony among the members of the group, and of the infighting for leadership positions; he concludes, "We were just getting anxious to get somewhere and get off the bus and stop doing the Acid Tests and start having some fun again. The Acid Tests became like work after a while."
Most valuable, however, are the insights we get into Kesey. Far from the jolly impresario that he has pictured himself as -- a sort of hippie Prospero -- we begin to see a very astute manipulator of both words and people, a man who turned away from literature for the same reasons he turned to it, to settle some very personal pains and grudges. "I think Ken had a fascination with the underside of society, with the rebellious of society," states Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert). "I think he had a tremendous amount of anger in him at the time."
The trouble with On the Bus is that it doesn't go far enough in this regard. While Perry tries to keep his narrative neutral, Babbs is an outright partisan of the myth. He gives us the Kesey that Kesey himself fashioned long ago, the Oregonian Paul Bunyan who "outscreams a panther, outstares a flash of lightning, totes a Nash Rambler on his back, plays rough and tumble with a mountain lion," etc. -- and reiterates Kesey's claim that the bus trip should be viewed as "the unsettlers of 1964 going backwards across the Great Plains." However charming, such exaggerations ignore the human truth that underlay the theatrics.
One wonders, for example, where Kesey's wife and children were while he romped across the country; or how they dealt with the matter of his having an illegitimate child with one of the Prankster women; or what became of the young woman known as Stark Naked, last seen when they abandoned her in a police station in Houston, after she'd been picked up for wandering about the city without any clothes on, disoriented by a massive dose of the Prankster's special orange juice. Perhaps most of all one would like to learn more about why this superb writer simply cast his trade to the wind for so many years. Instead, On the Bus gives us just the logical extension of the myth -- that to keep writing popular books would be to "sell into" commercialism, and hence Kesey chose to devote himself "to a lot more serious work, like riding around on buses and exploring the insides of various jail houses."
KESEY's The Further Inquiry doesn't go much farther in terms of self-revelation, even though one suspects that this dramatic trial of Neal Cassady's spirit before a heavenly court is really meant as an examination of Kesey's own past. Written originally as a film script, The Further Inquiry uses the characters and adventures from the bus trip, as well as a lush panoply of illustrations, in a far more imaginative format than On the Bus. Kesey himself never appears in it, but the charges that are being leveled at Cassady might as well have been brought against the author.
As the driver of Kesey's bus, Cassady is accused of reckless conduct and endangering the lives of those entrusted to his care; and he is specifically accused of brainwashing the young woman known as Stark Naked with his endless stream of mad talk, then taking advantage of her confusion to try to seduce her. A variety of witnesses from the trip are brought forward to testify before both an inquisitor, Chest, and a defense attorney, Miss Tooey. Both attorneys begin with an initial dislike for Cassady -- though Chest is the more traditionally self-righteous sort -- and both end up admiring him, even if Chest can scarcely admit it.
The main point of defense is Kesey's contention that some people are already so far ahead of others that the others can no longer comprehend them -- and, it follows, no longer have the right to judge them. In this argument Kesey agrees completely with Hunter S. Thompson that the true craziness lies in places like the government and corporate offices where people plot wars that kill and maim thousands and the devastation of the environment for windfall profits.
With The Further Inquiry Kesey shows that he has not finished examining his most important themes -- which, like Thompson's, deal with justice, sanity versus insanity, public versus personal responsibility, and the true nature of heroism. But the screenplay, like much of the material in his 1986 collection, The Demon Box, was written years earlier -- just as Thompson is now publishing the mementoes of his past career. From both writers we await further proof that the unconventional lifestyles they have chosen -- what Kesey refers to as "artistic days" -- can yield something more than the myth they have already created, something in the order of a genuine new truth for our time. Gerald Nicosia, the author of "Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac," is working on a history of the Vietnam Veterans Movement.